Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Toshikoshi Soba

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that on the last night of the year everyone in Japan will be eating soba noodles. This meal is traditionally called toshikoshi soba or year-crossing soba (buckwheat noodles). And I'm not kidding when I say that I really think everyone partakes in the custom. You should see the lines outside soba restaurants and the piles of tempura bought in supermarkets.

Eating the hot or cold noodles on the last day of the year is an auspicious way to 'cross over' to the New Year. There are several stories as to why. One, is that soba noodles are easily cut which signifies cutting off all your troubles and pain from this year so that you can start the new one afresh. Another is that back in the day, the craftsmen who worked with gold would use balls of soba dough to clean up their areas. All the tiny flakes of gold would stick to the dough. It was thought then that eating soba at the end of the year would insure a nice collection of wealth for the coming year.

My mother-in-law told me the reason soba noodles are eaten is because people wish to live their life like a soba noodle:thin and long. Of course, living long means a nice long life. Living thin, however, doesn't refer to your weight but to the way you live. Living thinly means not living extravagantly or excessively. She explained to me that you (I) should live cautiously and prudently. I told her I liked the idea of living long but that instead of soba I would eat toshikoshi udon, a much thicker and well-lived noodle if you ask me.

She was not impressed. To this day she brings over expensive bundles of homemade soba to keep me upholding the tradition the correct way. Maybe I should eat toshikoshi lasagna!

Anyways, one more thing that you must remember is that it is very bad luck to eat toshikoshi soba (or udon or lasagna) on New Year's Day. You must dine on the delicacy before midnight. Or else. Now that you mention it...that's not unlike a gremlin.

He, he, he! Happy New Year! I'll post tomorrow with all the fancy foods eaten during the New Year's holidays. My mother-in-law at work again! Yum!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Raising a Thief

Not the kid. The dog.

Okay, all puppies steal stuff then proceed to tear their loot to shreds. That's a given. Our beagle, Cha Cha Maru, was no different. But he went through a long stage of not giving anything back. He'd just devour it. Erasers, pencils, magazines, socks, slippers. Poof. Gone. (For awhile anyways. Six hours later some version of the booty would reappear from...well, his booty. Taking him for walks was a lot like Christmas. I didn't know what to expect!)

No amount of discipline, begging, weeping, or trickery worked to retrieve whatever item he had locked in his jaws. I did my online searches, bought my dog books from Amazon. I even sat for over an hour talking to him until he finally got sick of my preaching and dropped the stick of gum he had pilfered. But normally don't have that kind of time. I needed to get him to stop.

And then a few months ago we had a breakthrough. The dog managed to steal a hairbrush and instead of chewing it up, he promptly brought it over to me. Now, being as well-versed in doggy psychology as I am I praised him, scratched his ears, told him he was the best damned dog in the whole world.

My son told me I was over doing it. I said, Peshaw! I explained that if I yell he will have no incentive to return something. If I praise him he'll WANT to bring things back. Well, I was right. But the kid was right more.

For the past few months Cha has taken to randomly stealing things around the house and presenting them to me. Several -- sometimes dozens -- of times a day he comes trotting over to place something on my lap. Post it Notes that have been stuck my the TV to remind my husband what programs he wants to record, pencils that have been securely placed in pencil cups, even remote controls that sit innocently on the table. One of his favorite places to forage is my purse. I couldn't count how many times my wallet has been given back to me.

This is what I imagine he's thinking: "Gee, I feel blue. I'm hungry. Damn cat won't play with me. I need some love. Hey, look, the chair is pulled out. I wonder what's up there. Is that a spoon? Woa, wouldn't mom love that!"

And, of course, he is rewarded with with a "Gooood boy!" And kisses and scratches under the chin. Meanwhile, J shakes his head.

But now it has escalated with some very mixed results.

Here is a picture of Cha posing with a test he oh-so gently rested on my lap. It's an English test he pulled from J's book bag (one that I had yet to see). I learned that the child could not spell "Braille". Gooood doggy!

And just yesterday J was searching everywhere for a kanji notebook he had misplaced. Later the dog was feeling a tad lonely and voila! He trotted over and laid it at my feet. Goood boy!

But recently I'm starting to worry. He has taken to plucking ornaments off the Christmas tree and bringing them over. It's the cutest darned thing. Stars, santas, moutfuls of tinsel. To which my son replies, "You're just turning him into a thief."

And then it happened. I placed two thousand yen on the table for my husband to take to work, turned my head for a moment, and the money was gone. We checked his wallet, the floor. But there Cha was standing in the corner, waiting for me to sit down so he could give it to me, two bills dangling from his lips.
I got sternly lectured by my family for encouraging my kleptomaniac pup. But me? I'm thinking this might be useful.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Puzzle Box

Sometimes things impress me maybe way more than they should. But I don't know. This really impresses me.

In the late 1800s, the good folk of Hakone, Japan (in particular three men named Okawa, Okiyama, and Kikukawa) expanded on an idea and invented something called a Puzzle Box (karakuri bako) or Secret Box (himitsu bako). I had heard of them before but didn't know exactly what they did.

Then just the other day my son received one from his grandparents as a souvenir (this and the black eggs). It is pure awesome.

Here's a picture of what his Puzzle Box looks like. It's gorgeous inlaid wood. Or better yet, this. It's a technique called yosegi.

Here's a close up.

I mean that alone is amazing. But that isn't what makes it 'secret'.

What makes it secret is that you can't just open it. It's impossible. You have to slide the pieced together slats of wood in a certain order and a in a certain direction, before it will open. The order has to be exact. J's box is one that opens in 14 moves. But they make boxes that open anywhere from four moves to over a hundred moves.

To close it you have to slide them in the opposite order or it won't shut.

Here it is after a couple moves.

They say that the art of making these boxes has never been written down and has been instead passed down from generation to generation. One of those links up there say there are only nine craftsmen alive who can actually make one and only three apprentices learning the craft. I'm not sure I believe that. But I do believe the not written down part.

It seems a more primitive version of these were made to only be opened by either the maker or the owner. And valuables were hidden inside.
I finally -- with more than a little help from my son -- was able to open his. Guess what I found?
One game cartridge and a handful of guitar picks.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hot Spring Eggs

Today I received a bagful of onsen tamago, hot spring eggs. As many hot springs as there are in Japan and as famous as these delicacies are, I'd never eaten one before. These particular eggs were boiled in the mineral rich hot springs in Hakone.

Here's the package. It reads simply, Black Eggs.

Here is what one looks like. All sulphur-black, yum!

However, after peeling it there was no real difference in color or taste.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a difference. My mother-in-law handed me that bag and told me the saying about onsen tamago, a legend if you will.

It goes:

If you eat one egg, your life will be extended by seven years.

If you eat two eggs, your life will be extended by fourteen years.

And if you eat three or more eggs, you'll be good until you die.
J and I agreed, we're stopping at two.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ebisu Festival

Ebisu is one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. He's the dude carrying the giant sea bream and a fishing rod. The one with the great big smile on his face. (He's also known as The Laughing God.) Ebisu is thought of as the god of fishermen, good luck and laborers.

His story is creepy-cool. One version says that he used to be called Hiruko no Mikoto (note: Hiruko means leech child) and is the third son of the two gods that formed Japan. He was born without any bones and by the age of three was thrown into the ocean by his truly un-understanding parents. Still, he was able to make it back to shore and from then on was raised by a man named Ebisu Saburo. Soon Little Leech Boy managed to grow a skeletal system and become the god Ebisu. Despite his dysfunctional childhood, he is a jolly fellow, although some say he has a limp and is slightly deaf.

My town's main industry is fishing so Ebisu is an important symbol for the fishermen and dock workers. There is even a shrine dedicated to him.

Once a year in November the roads in front of the train station close down and an all-day/all-night festival dedicated to Ebisu erupts. This year I decided to go early before the nighttime crowds showed up.

Here you can see the stalls selling all sorts of goodies lining both sides of the street. By nightfall you can hardly walk for all the people. Half of them drunk. It really is a lively celebration.

The main reason everyone goes to the festival is to buy the good luck charms that are sold. Charms insuring good fortune, good health, and good wealth. Oh yeah, they also go to visit the small shrine dedicated to Ebisu to pay their respects. Maybe some go just to get drunk.

Here is a good luck charm of Ebisu and Daitokoku (another one of the Seven Lucky Gods). Ebisu is in the red hat. They could be twins.

Here hang all sorts of other good luck accessories for sale. The whole festival is so jangly and colorful, lots of gold and red.

Here are some other fun things I found for sale.


This guy is selling super balls for the kids. Children pay a few hundred yen and get a ladle that they use to scoop up as many super balls as they can.

Chocolate, strawberry and melon dipped bananas. With sprinkles!

And a stall that sold chicken steaks displayed several rubber chickens strung up by their necks.
And if you didn't think all the above was reason enough to respect a leech boy turned god. Remember that Ebisu is also the image character for Yebisu beer.

Yah, baby.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scary Caves and a Great Deal

We had a meltdown in our family last Friday night. Excuse me while I huff, stomp my foot, and grumble loudly, "The #&% school system!"

Yesterday was the first Saturday since January that my son didn't have school or club activities and I wasn't banging on rocks, so I decided we should go somewhere to relax, see some autumn colors, and not think about linear equations and Japanese classical literature for awhile.

We drove up to Mount Fuji's five lakes and were pleased to discover a sign that read the Bat Cave. They had these posters everywhere.

I've visited a lot of caves in the States and quite a few in Japan, and there really is a difference. First off, as far as I can judge Japan's aren't nearly as spacious or deep, no vaulted ceilings and pretty colors. I mean they are just hollows in volcanic rock and hardened magma, right?

What Japan caves do have though is a healthy dose of Fear. I've always loved how the Japanese don't feel they must protect you from yourself, or any crumbly rocks, darnit.

Here's a shot of us entering the bowels of the Bat Cave. You might notice a few things: no lights, no convenient bars to grab, and no one has previously come along to build some vaguely walkable surface upon which we can trudge.

I swear I have had nightmares made up of this stuff. Descending into darky depths where the deeper I go the narrower it gets. It's wet and hard and cold and my feet keep falling into crevices and my head keeps banging into the ceiling which is fast meeting the floor and before I know it I must get on my stomach and scoot and I can't back up because someone is behind me.

I'm serious, stomach scooting was involved!

Here are the kids taking a picture of me. They're probably laughing. I was in near freak-out mode by this time. They're all crouched down because they can't stand up.

It wasn't until I surfaced that I realized we saw not a single winged varmint and no Adam West. Still, it was cool.

Now for the bargain of the day. I found this guy in a souvenir shop selling nothing but gorgeous pieces of blown glass. It was in a dusty, unlit corner all by itself.

The Robot from Lost in Space!

The only one left and marked down from eight bucks to four!

And, I'll have you know, I did NOT buy the five dollar bag of pine cones.

No, really. They were selling pine cones for five hundred yen. Small bags at that.

Finally, a couple of shots of the beautiful scenery.

There are two dots waaay in the background. That would be J and his best friend stretching their legs after a long-ass drive.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Blogging Lessons

I think I need to take blogging lessons from a plant. In Kamakura there's a cafe' called Bowls where you'll find the world's first blogging houseplant, Midori-san. (If you click on "About" there is an English section that explains more.)

Here is a bit of what is says:

"This product is the world first (!?) “blogging houseplant”, produced by KAYAC Co., Ltd. and Satoshi Kuribayashi at the Keio University Hiroya Tanaka Laboratory who developed “the plant interface system”, which is the foundation of this product.

The system, to post Midori-san’s thoughts online, uses surface potential sensors to read the weak bioelectric current flowing across the surface of the leaves.

At DONBURI CAFE DINING bowls, you can see the blogging houseplant Midori-san. If you touch her gently, she’ll tell you the chemistry between you.

Even at home, you can see the activity of Midori-san and activating a web-controlled fluorescent lamp, treat a dose of light either through the website or the widget."

How friggin' cool is that?

And she updates almost daily. I really do have so much to learn.

These Keio University students have attached sensors to Midori-san's leaves, developed some algorithm to read and understand her thoughts, and then translate them into Japanese. The set up looks like this:

If you stop by the cafe' you can take your picture with her, send it in, and she'll post the photo of the two of you on her blog. You can also give her a blast of juicy fluorescent light just by clicking on the light-giving widget and she'll respond at the end of her blog with a "Today's Thank Yous" link to everyone who made her feel great.

She blogs things like the weather, temperature, humidity, how she's feeling, how busy the cafe' was, stuff like that.

And she's got a huge fan-base, too. She says there are sometimes lines outside just waiting to get in!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Praying for the Needles and the Chickens

Kuyou is a Japanese word that means to hold a mass or ceremony, to pray for something. There are all sorts of kuyous going on throughout the year.

When I first moved here like fifteen years ago I freaked out when several old women came to my door with a plate of tofu and asked me to insert any old, bent, or broken pins or needles I had. They said they were taking them all to the local shrine to be prayed for.

Yomiuri Online had a great picture of what the tofu looks like after quite a few contributions.

Unfortunately, I am not exactly sure how to use a needle or pin so I couldn't take part in the festival.

And then several years ago I heard about another type of kuyou but could never find anything about it on the Internet. Today I came across this.


Once a year in Japan there is a special Shinto ceremony held to offer thanks and appreciation to all the chickens that will be killed to make that KFC goodness.

It's called Thanks to the Broiler Chickens!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Is This Recycling?

This morning I woke up early and decided to take the animal for a predawn walk.

Here he is expressing his pleasure.


Hurry up!

Faster than a speeding bullet.

While Cha was relieving himself on a bush beside the bypass, an old man teetered out of his house carrying three manga comic books in his hand. He strode past us and placed them on the corner of the underpass. Just like that.

Like so.

My first thought was what a jerk, throwing away his books like that. Geez.

Then it hit me, maybe he's leaving the manga there for all the junior high school kids who invariably take the underpass on their way to school. Maybe they're really interesting comics that he wants to pass along, free of charge. What a stellar guy!

Unfortunately, he's like standing right there smoking a cigarette and starring at me so I can't take a peek.

Cha and I return home. I fix breakfast and then the thought runs through my mind, wait, maybe they're dirty books and this old man is some kind of pervert, baiting kids. (You must take note, I'm reading Whoever Fights Monsters by Robert Ressler, a book about what it is that makes a serial killer.)

When it's time for J to go to school I ninja-follow him with my camera and snap some pictures. He didn't take the bait. *Wew* There he is walking into the abyss.

After making sure the old man has gone inside, I sneak over to the books to take a look. They seem safe enough. Robot stuff. But I didn't have time to thumb through them because you never know. Japanese comics can look like the cutest darned things in the world until you get half way into them...shock! The jury is still out on the old guy though.

As an aside, J is sitting beside me right now and glanced over. He saw the pictures of him walking down the bypass and says, those manga are still there by the way. It's like he read my mind. Creepy.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Call Me Haephestus. Well, kinda.

I see the similarities.

Recently I've been thinking about Ojizo, the guardian Buddhist saint of children (usually deceased), a kind of savior for the souls of the underworld. There's really a lot to him (sometimes her!) but for now just know there are cute little stone statues all over Japan that are representations of this deity. And for some unknown reason, I've been obsessed with them. I've been buying books, studying, wandering around taking pictures. One day last week I asked my mother-in-law if she knew of someone who carves the statues because I wanted to ask him some questions. She said yes, she did, there was a famous jizo carver guy living nearby. No way! She gave me his name and all his wonderful deeds but couldn't give me an address or anything more. I went home and spent a wee bit of time on the Internet, a few calls later and I'm now one of his students!

It rocks. It literally rocks. Ha ha ha ha...! (*I'm slapping my knee here*)

Yesterday was my first lesson. Five hours of pounding stone. But first I had to get to his place which was an hour's drive in the mountains. At the risk of driving into and oncoming car or straight off the side of a cliff I took a few pictures.

Narrow ass bridge.

I can't tell you how nervous I was. I was. But after finding the parking place I marched down the side of the mountain and ran into two shaggy-looking men cutting trees with a chainsaw. Although he didn't introduce himself right away, I knew one was the teacher (thank you, Google) so I could be all smarmy polite and make a good impression. Despite being told he was a mean little curmudgeon, I found the teacher was perfectly delightful and he had no wrists!

He, as it turns out, has got quite a name for himself. He has statues all over Japan and a bunch in Kyoto at famous temples. He said that once a German museum curator was touring Kyoto and saw one of his ojizo statues and fell in love. It took him awhile, but he tracked my teacher down to this little no-name town and begged him to make one for his museum in Germany. Cool.

Here are some pictures I took of some of his pieces that were sitting around the work area.

This is a post card of some of his work.

There are ten other students. All long-timers. All very, very good. Here they are measuring and drawing out plans and such.

The first jizo any student makes is this one. Very simple. Very cute.

I received a block of stone, some instruments and was shown how to pick which surface to use as the surface, how to find the center, and how to lay the rock between my feet for good carving. Then I was told to go slow but have at it.

I spent a bit of time watching others carve, I swatted several mosquitoes and once ran screaming like an idiot from a giant spider (I mean, we're way in the mountains guys!)...that last one really endeared me to the teacher I think. But most of the five hours I spent swinging my hammer and chipping away stone. And this is what my rock looked like when I was done for the day:

Almost there!

They say it will take at least six months to complete. The other students are working on projects that have lasted years. Some take their (BIG) stones home with them to work on them there. They all have various bandages and wrappings on their arms and fondly laughed at me remembering out loud a time when they didn't have tendinitis. Still. Despite some serious joint throbbing today, I'm stoked about the little statue. As a matter of fact, I already have a place in my garden for it--a small patch of moss that I will encourage to grow on the jizo with vast success I'm assuming.

Only one problem. Of all the hobbies I could have picked, I seemed to have chosen the one where if we ever decided to head back to the States I couldn't possibly lug my masterpieces home with me. But who knows, maybe by then the price of overweight baggage will go down. Or I'll win the lottery.

I hope.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Why I Can't Play Wii or Meet the Enemy

Wii is awesome. Wii rocks. You see, I was recently addicted to Wii Fit. I could enjoy yoga, hoola hooping and ski jumping while being encouraged by a hottie computer dude; my weight and BMI all kept secret from the rest of the family via password protection. But then I had to stop.

This is true. I totally believe it. Wii attracts cockroaches. Or at least Japanese cockroaches--the worst kind.

We've lived in this house almost seven years, and I had never seen a single cockroach. Three months ago, my son and I began to play Wii and within a week...seven! We stopped the Wii fun. None.

Meet the enemy. (For those with faint hearts, look away now.)

Those fellows are the spawns of Satan. Japanese cockroaches aren't just big, they're HUGE--they're sneaky and they are crazy-smart . Japanese cockroaches know how to seek revenge. (The stories I could tell! But I'm not going there today.) Oh, did I also mention the buggers could also FLY? And when provoked even just a little, they will kamikaze your face or your nice fancy hairdo.

Japanese cockroaches also have this thing about dying. They just don't like to do it. They fight hard. Often times they'll play dead waiting for you run to grab a roll of paper towels. When you return, they've vanished and worse, they're pissed off.

So how do you kill a Japanese cockroach. Well, the quickest death I ever saw was in our old (very OLD) house that we rented when we first got married. I was cooking steaks. I never buy steaks, they're expensive. But it was my birthday, so I splurged. When I went to turn on the fan--plop! an enormous roach fell right into the pan....sizzle, pop, dead. We ate rice and salad that night. I cried a little and never used the fan again.

Bug sprays don't always work. You usually end up offing your pets (and shortening your own life by several years) just trying to get the demons to slow down. They still manage to escape. And they will be back.

Here are my three weapons of choice:

It's old. It's tried. It's true.

1. The business end of a boot.

Unfortunately, cockroaches have a lot of gunk loaded in them. A LOT of gunk. Which makes clean up no fun at all. Plus you have to aim just right *HINT* If you see their antennae facing forward it means their awake, on guard and speedy--faster than you can ever hope be. Aim in front and pray. If, however, their antennae are laid back and not moving. The monsters are sleeping or sleepy or otherwise not aware you are around, yet. THIS is your chance. May the gods be with you.

2. Freezing Spray, baby.

This just came out. They had to discontinue it for awhile because despite the warnings on the label people were using it in the kitchen around open fires. Explosions ensued.

Anyways, it's back. It's minus 80 degrees C, baby!

3. An Electric Tennis Racket.

I'm not kidding. That's what it is. This was (I'm ashamed to say) part of my son's birthday presents. He loves stuff like this, and I thought of it as sort of a gag gift. Little did I know how useful it would become.

Add batteries, push the button and the wires are all electrified. Swing that puppy at any flying insect and ZAP!!

However, the point is moot because I haven't turned on my Wii in months. And (knock on wood), no creepy crawlies have shown up to scare the living crap out of me. Although my son has taken a shine to the racket and can zap a mosquito out of the sky before you even hear it buzz.

And now for your viewing entertainment. A Japanese commercial for cockroach spray. It's an old one. I'm not usually fond of Japanese commercials. I don't understand them. This one, just rocks.